JACKSON, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – A supervisor called Darlene Smith at her work-from-home office one afternoon this summer, wondering why she’d taken her 30-minute lunch break 30 minutes early.
She was changing her 6-month-old’s diaper and tending to her rambunctious 6-year-old.
“I thought I was about to lose my job,” Smith said.
Smith had been receiving child care assistance through the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Child Care Payment Program for the last four years so she could hold a job.
In June, just a few months after her maternity leave ended, the agency put Smith through “redetermination” — essentially making her reapply for the program. It found her ineligible and abruptly ended her benefits.
Smith is one of thousands of Mississippi parents, according to a survey of child care centers, who have lost their child care certificate in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic, even while the state hoards over half-a-billion in unspent federal child care dollars.
Typically, parents must prove they worked at least 25 hours every week in order to remain eligible for the assistance.
At her job as a customer service representative for an insurance company, where she answers calls and handles claims, Smith was working between 20 and 24 hours.
After Smith lost the voucher, she had to pull her daughter out of daycare, where the little girl was receiving uninterrupted attention. When they’re at home, Serenity, the 6-year-old, likes to rile up baby Martez, causing a squealing commotion.
“I don’t have time to see what’s going on ‘cause I’m on the phone,” Smith said. “You gotta answer all your calls. You’ll get in trouble if you don’t answer your calls.”
Mississippi had the option to suspend the certificate program’s regular rules, including redetermination, during the ongoing health and economic crisis.
But the state chose not to, straining both low-income households and the child care centers whose budgets rely on the government subsidy.
“We’ve lost a lot of children because of redetermination,” said Patricia Young, owner of School of Champions Development & Learning Academy in Itta Bena. “Parents have not had that opportunity or chance to get back to work, to even look for a job. That’s really been hard.”
Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, which conducted the recent survey, estimates that between 3,600 and 4,100 parents lost their assistance during the recent redetermination process, which could translate to up to 7,300 children now lacking childcare.
As Mississippi’s welfare department has kicked parents off the child care voucher, Young said she’s watched her center’s revenue decrease and her blood pressure skyrocket.
At the same time, she’s taken on more responsibility because kids who used to attend her center part-time are there all day conducting virtual learning as the public schools navigate COVID-19.
“They’re opening and closing and opening and closing because of the virus,” Young said.
In Itta Bena, nearly half the residents live in poverty and the median household income is just over $17,000, so Young’s center relies on the government subsidy to stay in business.
“The (parents) I have are working at factories or food plants or at McDonalds. They cannot afford to pay for child care,” Young said. “That’s the purpose that I was thinking the certificate program was for, to help those parents who cannot otherwise afford child care.”
Mississippi has some of the least expensive child care costs in the nation, meaning providers are paid less here, leading to lower pay for child care workers and limited resources for early childhood development inside the centers.
Even so, economic conditions in Mississippi mean that a typical family still cannot afford care, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services standards, and must spend 22% of its income on child care.
The child care voucher, a critical work support for low-income families, is not extra cash in a parent’s pocket, but ensures kids have a safe place to go with supervision and socialization while they are at work.
The child care division’s COVID-19 emergency policy, filed in April of 2020, suspended work requirements for the child care program. It stated that once the governor determined child care was no longer in an emergency condition, clients would be given a 60 day period to begin searching for a job or enroll in school in order to remain eligible for the benefit.
But providers told Mississippi Today that the department offered them no warning.
“The child care providers had no clue. They woke up one morning, checked their email and had termination, termination, termination, termination, termination,” said Debbie Ellis, owner of child care center The Learning Tree in Greenwood. “… I cannot imagine the benefit to the state.”
Mississippi Department of Human Services did not respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for interviews or comment for this story, which began in August, by the time of publication. The agency plans to host a virtual public hearing to gather comments about policies within the Child Care Payment Program tomorrow, September 21st, at 11 a.m.